Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010, Banksy)

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HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen.” – Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) in Broadcast News (1987)

Periodically throughout his first feature film, the internationally beloved street artist Banksy appears in a series of well-framed, laid-back interviews, with his voice disguised. When most documentarians appear in their own projects, the result is tiresome if not deadly — witness Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore — but Banksy’s comments are recited with impeccable, artful deadpan, even as he appears pensive and shifty in his seat surrounded by his artwork. Other interviewees throughout the feature, including Shepard Fairey of OBEY and HOPE fame and a former associate of Banksy’s named Steve Lazarides, appear bemused and baffled by the tales they tell. But Banksy seems intuitively to know what it all means, magically attuned to what the bizarre character study of one French-to-U.S. immigrant named Thierry Guetta says about art, commerce and us.

That makes him a perfect Dickensian choice to tell a story in which he really figures only as a peripheral influence. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a headlong foray into the life of a good, lively and decent man that happens to encompass a whirlwind of cultural importance that initially swirls around him before he finally chooses to push in on it himself. At first glance, Gift Shop can feel like three separate films: a quirky but sweet character study, a passionate history of the street art movement, and a subtly fiery takedown of the way trendiness and commercialism can squash invention. Only on reflection does the full scope and inadvertent elegance of the story become clear, and much of that is owed to this deadpan enterprise Banksy has created whereby mockery and adulation become unrecognizably fused and it’s difficult to tell if anything is joke or not, or as Lazarides puts it, if there even is a joke.

As the film opens, Guetta’s spent much of his adult life filming everything that’s happened to him, accumulating hundreds of videotapes he simply stores away without ever viewing. He says he does it to preserve his memories of the people around him after the unexpected loss of his mother decades ago, but while his adorable family figures prominently in the footage shown, so does a lot of batty stargazing (tapping Jay Leno on the nose with his camera, shadowing Shaquille O’Neal pointlessly down a street, and withstanding the taunts of Noel Gallagher) and sheer obnoxiousness (like the unwarranted terrifying of a store clerk). On a vacation to Paris, the discovery that Guetta is the cousin of famed street artist Invader suddenly gives a context and purpose to his constant, aimless shooting. Soon enough he’s in the international “inner circle” of urban artists and is able to gather often awe-inspiring footage of many titans of the form at work: Fairey, Ron English, Borf and eventually Banksy himself. The secretive, sometimes anonymous group seems to give Guetta their trust because, for one thing, he’s an affable guy and related to Invader, and beyond that, he’s capturing on film something that’s never before been widely seen and — with the crackdowns in cities the world over on vandalism — sorely needs documentation. In fact, Guetta has no intention of looking at the tapes and piecing together the documentary he’s promised his new friends until Banksy, uncomfortable with the increasingly fashionable commercialism attached to his own work and that of his peers, insists that Guetta crack down to present to the world the real, elbow-greasy, frenetically enthusiastic and anarchic world of street art.

The result, completed in early 2007, is a bizarre ninety-minute mishmash of MTV editing tricks called Life Remote Control; the presented excerpt makes it look like F for Fake gone horrendously awry. Fusing its rational ambition of emotionally capturing the movement Guetta had spent years tape-recording with some muddled comment about information overload and the modern attention span, the film mortified Banksy with its incomprehensibly assaultive pacing and lack of substance. He chose to take the footage away and try to assemble the project himself (the source, it seems, for the first forty minutes or so of Exit) and became Guetta’s mentor in another sense, by advising him to put on a “little” art show. After some modest “bombing” excursions in L.A., the Frenchman took this to heart, assembled an over-the-top, tasteless and garish K-Mart / VH1 variation on the street art phenomenon (various people with Marilyn Monroe’s hair; Elvis holding a toy gun; John Lennon with a bleeding hole in his head) in the gigantic enclosure of an abandoned CBS studio in Hollywood, and became an overnight sensation under the name “Mr. Brainwash,” to the complete mystification of Banksy and Fairey, who see Guetta’s work (very little of which was actually put together by the credited artist) as a bastardization and cheapening of their own. The movie closes with Banksky proclaiming through a text epilogue that he won’t be helping anyone else with their street art documentaries, while Invader implicitly regrets ever bringing Guetta into the artists’ confidence.

Though the dramatic story of Guetta’s ascendance to the million-dollar world of commercial art sales is a straight enough line despite its complexity and uncomfortable implications, much of Gift Shop‘s success as a film is owed to the peripheral material that simply jumps aboard as a product of circumstance. Much as Guetta once found himself in the right place at the right time to shove his camera in Jay Leno’s face, through Invader he’s received the opportunity to lurk around at night with graffiti gods and place his own stamp on the process by assisting, sometimes at dangerous heights and amidst potential police scrapes. To his credit, Guetta clearly has an understanding, if not of the sometimes incendiary political subtext of many of these works, then certainly of their spirit of fun, humor, and counterculturalism. “I thought it was nice what they were doing,” he says early on. “I thought it was nice that you would take stuff that you love, put it outside, and people can see.” Banksy, predictably, has no trouble communicating these elements in the first part of the film.

Because the movie isn’t positioned, as Guetta’s was, as an assumption that the viewer is intimately familiar with street art, the early montages on the movement are revelatory and exciting, capturing with perfect economy and spirit the humor and sense of rebellious fun in a movement it’s able to portray as somewhat magical. Shadows painted on the ground; retro video game characters inexplicably adorning staid walls; a paper dog rising up from a vent when it turns on in a sort of Seven Year Itch allusion; eerie monster hands rising from the center of a “Do Not Enter” sign. A bursting of nonconformity out of pallid cityscapes — and after it’s introduced to us, we see how it’s made, with wonderfully alive covert sneaking around and eluding the police, despite pratfalls and setbacks along the way. Whether the art itself is revolutionary or not, the cut-and-run manner in which it’s made feels like it is, the act and setting of the work as important as the work itself.

Banksy and his editors don’t turn the camera on his own work until later in the film, when he enters the narrative himself. Whatever one feels about Thierry Guetta, he is to be commended for the remarkable footage he captured of Banksy at work after the two ran into each other in California. First there is the actual act of his stenciling and creation of a wall piece; later, the glimpse at his workspace and bungalow and the actual putting together of a broken phone booth sculpture that we later see selling for more than $100,000; and finally, the firsthand witnessing of his audacious Disneyland Guantanamo stunt of 2006 — a top-caliber, gripping cinematic moment that narratively serves only to bring Guetta and Banksy closer together in mutual trust but nonetheless is among the most memorable scenes of the film.

He trusts Guetta intimately at that point in the story, and the achievement is: so do we. The first distinct half of the film sells Thierry as such a winning, spirited, curious, enjoyable person that we’re really thrown for a loop by our (and the movie’s) change in attitude toward him, coinciding with his own transformation into the egomaniacal, unjustly celebrated Mr. Brainwash — a non-artist who screams at his assistants, wrings large-scale nonsense out of half-baked ideas, and takes money from the hands of trendies just like he did in the successful retro boutique he owned at the outset, only now his earnings run in the millions. His former friends seem confused; he appeared so worthy of their trust, and yet in the final analysis he used them, adopting a mutated version of their artform to sell as product, a market he undoubtedly eyed when Banksy’s work began to earn gobs of money at unauthorized auctions. We still can’t dislike him, even in his pompous sunglassed Brainwash persona, but that makes him even more dangerous. Indeed, he succeeds at his artistic goal: he brainwashes his patrons, and the rest of us.

In its use of irony and the same impressionistic quandary of really knowing the people you know we wrestle with in day-to-day life, there’s never been a documentary quite like Exit Through the Gift Shop; ironically, the sole precedent I’m aware of is Orson Welles’ F for Fake, the deceptive magic trick that seemed to in some sense inspire Life Remote Control. Subtle as it is, there is the same mixture of awe and weariness toward the characters in this film as Welles exhibits; Banksy even pokes fun at himself and the British press’ vision of him a little bit. But despite a controversy alleging that the rich story of Exit Through the Gift Shop was a Banksy-led prank, none of the Wellesian tomfoolery or fakery is exhibited here. The story seems too complex, too human and full of anticlimactic disappointment, to be fabricated. Of course, anything’s possible, and there’s no use denying that Gift Shop fits more neatly in the scope of scripted narrative films than nonfiction. There are touches of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, about a newspaper man who dooms a man’s life to get a story, and Wilder’s sense of seen-it-all cynicism in general, but also a world-embracing contradiction to same that instantly calls to mind the work of Hal Ashby, whose classic Being There measures its chillingly pointed satire with a genuine affection for its characters. Being There, which lets us fall in love with Peter Sellers’ vacantly smiling Chance while also forcing us to fear his power over the world, may the best parallel to explain Thierry Guetta as Banksy sees him.

In interviews with Banksy’s associates, it’s claimed that despite his comments at the close of the film, Banksy still likes Guetta a great deal and doesn’t wish to sabotage his career; for his part, Guetta has been an extremely good sport about the movie and it has done nothing to stop the ascendancy of Mr. Brainwash, even as the Banksy project has helped fuel a growing backlash against him in the street art community (with his pieces in larger cities now being regularly defaced). Despite the sardonic remark about no longer believing everyone should make art (shades of Ratatouille?), Banksy’s goal with Exit Through the Gift Shop doesn’t approach character assassination, and really seems of a piece with his concurrent work on a couch gag for The Simpsons, a divisive project that critiqued that long-running series for its ties to News Corporation and depicted slave labor and animal abuse as allowing for the show’s existence, the idea being: no matter how pure or good something is, greed and commercialism are fully capable of corrupting it. The Simpsons has been run as nothing more than a corporate-sponsored money machine for well over a decade. The spirit of fun, passion, dedication, and political upheaval that fueled street art cannot survive a force as persuasive, well-staffed and financially motivated as Mr. Brainwash, who doesn’t place “things you love” out on the street — he preys on self-styled art patrons and collectors. And the idea of art, as Douglas Adams put it, continues to kill creativity. Does it really matter if a documentary that so persuasively illustrates that point is entirely true or false?

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